KIRKUK, Iraq — While the season and the scenery have changed, the 173rd Airborne
Brigade’s mission in Iraq largely has stayed the same: Keep the peace and keep things
“We’re in an area that desperately needs what we’re doing,” said
Col. Bill Mayville, the brigade commander.
After jumping into the country in March, the Vicenza, Italy-based soldiers have
gradually made their way south, leaving behind temperate weather and tall grassland to
find large cities surrounded by scorching deserts.
The brigade is centered in and around Kirkuk, a city of about 1 million inhabitants.
It’s difficult to tell exactly how many people live in Kirkuk — or any Iraqi
city — because a census hasn’t been taken in decades.
Out to the country
The brigade’s 1st Battalion, 508th Infantry Regiment has moved out of the city and
into smaller surrounding villages. Companies in the battalion have turned into vagabonds,
establishing compounds, only to then move on to new trouble spots.
Capt. Ned Ritzmann leads Company A, which is headquartered in a former school for girls
in the town of Hawija. The school is surrounded by a low wall, creating a compound
that’s big enough to comfortably house the company and its Humvees.
Ritzmann and 1st Sgt. Michael Stribling know at least one person is unhappy that
Americans are in town. Someone has targeted them several times by tossing improvised
grenades into the compound. No one’s been seriously injured. But a ring of concertina
wire now surrounds the compound.
Stribling isn’t worried much about a grenade attack now.
“Good thing this is a soccer country and they all throw like girls,” he said,
smiling. But even an Olympian would have trouble tossing a grenade over the gap that now
Still, grenades aren’t all that’s out there. So Stribling directed a group of
soldiers to build a wooden support structure near the gate.
Neither Stribling nor the rest of the company will get much sleep this night. Most of
the camp is emptied to conduct a pre-dawn raid, although nothing is found. But, Ritzmann
said, it showed that his company is still aggressive.
“We’re trying not to just sit out here and say, ‘Let’s stay out of
the heat,’” Ritzmann said. “I can honestly say that in the time we’ve
been here, we’ve made a difference.”
Aggressive, but not overly so, Stribling said.
“Wear them down with kindness,” he said, pointing to soldiers returning from
a patrol and trading high-fives with some children near the compound gate.
That’s similar to what Company C is doing in the nearby town of Jar Silah.
There are a lot of commonalities between the two companies. Both live in schools. Both
have soldiers acting as carpenters, police officers and whatever else it takes to get the
And both companies don’t seem to get much sleep.
“It’s one of the great things about soldiers,” said 1st Lt. John
McDougall, the executive officer for Company C. “They’re so versatile.”
McDougall is one of the few soldiers awake after the raid with Company A. Most are
Staff Sgt. Tim Decoudres and Spc. William Cundiff are two others who are awake.
They’re soon atop the building and watching the perimeter of the base behind their
sandbag-protected machine-gun emplacements.
A busy local road is fairly close to the camp — close enough for someone to take a
few long-range shots and quickly get away. Once, a mortar shell came close to hitting the
On the go
Just about everything, including a nightly meal from the dining facility, comes to the
battalion via convoy from the air base in Kirkuk. One or two convoys, each supported by
Humvees and soldiers scanning the largely desolate landscape with hands on weapons, makes
the hourlong trip each day.
Several oil refineries are scattered around the countryside. Shepherds try to keep
hundreds of sheep from getting too close to the roads. The convoys reach the battalion
headquarters, drop off their cargo and turn around.
A few days later, other soldiers assigned to the brigade are blocking off some of the
same roads the convoys normally take.
Second Lt. Greg Couturier’s sapper platoon is part of the Combat Support Company.
Today, the mission is to keep traffic away while soldiers blow up unexploded ordnance in
It’s not that exciting — just a few loud “booms” and a lot of
Iraqis seem used to dealing with unexploded ordnance. And most probably wouldn’t
do more than turn their heads while driving by it if Couturier’s platoon wasn’t
“I think they know where a lot of the stuff is,” he said.
The operation needs to go quickly, though, because items such as the red marker flags
and sandbags that are left by themselves quickly disappear.
“Whenever we put out anything marking material, it’s like, ‘Here’s
free stuff,’” Couturier said, shaking his head.
Back at HQ
Most of the brigade’s support elements are based on the air base outside the city.
That’s also where Mayville’s headquarters is.
The colonel is quick to spread praise around for those helping his brigade accomplish
its missions. There are armored elements from the 1st Infantry Division and 4th Infantry
Division. Mayville reports to the 4th ID, which has units all over the north of the
An Air Force squadron of A-10 Warthogs and a detachment of Apaches also are based at
the airport for close-air support.
But it’s the 173rd that’s grabbed the attention of the locals in Kirkuk, if
not the international media.
“I guess good news doesn’t sell,” Mayville says.
The 173rd isn’t regularly mentioned in media reports, troops said. Only one
soldier in the brigade has died since it entered the country. And that was an accident.
Others have been seriously wounded in attacks, though, and had to leave the Army.
The only real attention the brigade has received recently was for its role in an
incident involving Turkish special forces. A tip lead to the raid of a compound where
armed people were reportedly involved in planning to assassinate the mayor of Kirkuk.
Soldiers found armed militants; some of them belonged to the Turkish special forces.
After their detention, an international incident ensued, with Turkey lashing out angrily.
That was a few weeks ago, and Mayville said: “I don’t think there were any
He said Turkish liaisons were working with his command even before the incident took
place. In fact, keeping Turkey mollified — and out of Iraq — was one of the
brigade’s primary missions when it landed in the north of the country. The American
presence, it was hoped, would calm the region and keep the Kurdish population from seeking
a separate country that Turkey would find threatening.
The area certainly seems relatively calm, especially compared to what’s going on
in and around Baghdad to the south.
Still, Mayville doesn’t see his brigade leaving very quickly.
“I told everyone when we left for Iraq to be ready for six months to 12
months,” he said. “I think that’s probably realistic now. Probably closer
to 12 than six.”
That would mean experiencing a few more seasons in Iraq.
As for new scenery, Mayville says he still thinks Kirkuk needs help. But the brigade
will go where there’s work to do.
“Be glad to do it,” he said. “This community and this country need us.
This is the right place to be. The right mission. And something that everybody can be